For a very long time, the three recurring issues that have come up when heads have opened their hearts to me have been cuts to education funding, the crisis in teacher supply and the severity of the accountability regime.
These are the problems that have kept them awake – and it doesn’t matter if they’re primary or secondary.
But in the past couple of years, another issue has joined this list: huge problems with the provision of child and adolescent mental health services (Camhs).
Time and again, leaders of varying types and straddling political and pedagogical divides have told me extraordinary stories of severely troubled and vulnerable children being left without help because of how stretched these services have become.
Now, Tes has published two accounts that bring this issue into sharp focus: one detailing life inside a modern Camhs department, and the other revealing the extraordinary suffering of children who are not receiving the treatment they need – including horrifying stories of suicide attempts.
Heads, not unreasonably, don’t just worry about their kids, but about how they are being left exposed professionally and how their staff are being expected to resolve deep problems, often with no training.
The pressure on mental health services
To be fair, this situation is not solely a consequence of cuts. Camhs departments have been caught in a pincer movement. Not only are their budgets often being hammered, they are also witnessing a rocketing number of referrals.
There is evidence that the increase in mental health issues is down to much greater awareness and diagnosis – which is, of course, a good thing – but also that too often Camhs are dealing with cases that should never have made it to their waiting rooms. Clearly, there is a need for an exercise in public education in this space.
But that doesn’t mean that this isn’t a bona fide crisis – a crisis of life and death. It’s all too easy to sit, one step removed from education and health’s frontline, and throw cold stats around about the twin crises of education funding and child mental health; it’s altogether another thing when one realises that this is about the lives of our young people.
For whatever reason, Camhs services are at breaking point and, as a result, children are literally attempting suicide. And for that, as a country, we should be ashamed.
Ed Dorrell is head of content at Tes